Won’t You Let Me Take You On A Sea Cruise?

Crossposted from https://www.patreon.com/posts/79577671

So welcome to the report from day one of the Beach Boys Cruise. This is being written at 7:30 in the morning, which makes no sense to me as I’m normally only vaguely aware that there *is* such a time. I normally wake up about 10:30 in the morning and don’t really start properly waking until the early afternoon, and creative work such as writing is usually a night-time pursuit. But we’re currently six timezones ahead of the UK, on Belize time, and so I found myself waking up at 6AM. So I might as well do a report on yesterday’s events now (though this will be written in bits over the course of the day as I snatch time to do it).

The cruise started rather auspiciously. I’m not going to talk about my companion much, because I don’t like to share too much about my personal life, but she wasn’t with me last year, and hasn’t seen the Beach Boys with me before. We were stood outside the cruise terminal while she had a pre-boarding smoke, and the tour bus pulled up right where we were stood and the backing band members and crew all got out. I gave a little wave/nod to a couple of the band members I’ve met multiple times before, and they had brief chats (or in one case just said “Hi Andrew” while manoeuvring his bag). This meant that my companion was now convinced that I am an Important Figure With Connections because they know me by name. I suspect that they know me by name as an annoying tit they try to avoid (I used to know one of them relatively well online, but for some reason whenever we met in person I was at my worst and most non-verbal, and must have come off incredibly unimpressively), but don’t tell her that, OK? It’s our secret.

(That may come off as an attempt to namedrop, especially given what I’m about to say, but I doubt anyone reading this would actually be particularly impressed by the fact that I’ve had an occasional chat with some musicians).

After the customary customs faff (and here’s a Top Travel Tip I only learned after becoming physically disabled — international travel is *much* easier if you use a mobility aid, because they just shoo you to the front of the queues) we were on the ship, and then the shoe was on the other foot when after having been a fan meeting artists he likes, for the first time ever a couple came up and talked to me because they recognised me from my podcast. They didn’t give their names, but the husband said he was “a subscriber” in a way which made me think that possibly he was talking about my Patreon. If so, please do let me know who you are.

I won’t talk too much about the rest of the “cruise experience” as opposed to the music today, because there are days (today, for example) where there are more panels and talks and so on than musical performances, so those will be a good chance to talk about that stuff. 

First up, there was a pre-sail show by the Isley Brothers, which I’d been looking forward to immensely since it was announced. I’d bought a ticket in 2019 to see the Isleys’ 2020 UK tour, and when that was cancelled, given Ronald Isley’s age and the relative infrequency of their UK visits, I’d assumed I’d missed my only chance to see them.

I’ve obviously covered the Isleys on the podcast before, and they’re going to get covered again, but what i haven’t been able to show yet is just *how much* they’ve done. This is a group that started performing before Elvis, who were covered by the Beatles, who had Jimi Hendrix as their touring guitarist, who were sampled by Public Enemy, but who *are still making relevant music today*, seventy years on. Their most recent R&B top five hit, a remake of their old hit “Make Me Say it Again Girl” done as a duet with Beyonce, was less than six months ago. 

There’s only one member left, lead singer Ronald Isley, from the lineup that recorded their first big hit, “Shout”, back in 1959 — O’Kelly died in 1986, and Rudolph quit music following his death to become a Christian minister — but his younger brother Ernest, who joined the band in 1969 on guitar and played on their run of classic hits in the seventies, many of which he co-wrote, still tours with him, and their show is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

The Isley Brothers started in the days of the chitlin’ circuit, and their show somehow manages to encapsulate every aspect of Black American entertainment and showmanship from the last sixty-plus years. It’s flashy and tacky and ridiculous, but in ways that nonetheless somehow exemplify utter cool. Ronald Isley has a golden microphone stand (which doubles as a walking stick for him to hold on to — he’s clearly not too steady on his pins and spends much of the show sat down) and came out wearing a white suit, with a waistcoat open to show his chest and a medallion, and with *sparkling, glass-studded shoes*. This should remind me of nothing more than Lenny Henry’s comedy character Theophilus P. Wildebeest, but it *works*,  as do the sexy dancers who somehow achieved a costume change for every song, and all the other bits of flash. It’s a show where the performers come out determined that the audience are going to be entertained, by sheer force of willpower if necessary, and it *absolutely* works in person (in a way I suspect it wouldn’t, for me at least, in video).

Isley’s voice was mixed rather too low (possibly just a problem with the venue — an outdoor performance with no opportunity to soundcheck is never going to be the greatest acoustic environment, something I’ll undoubtedly come back to many times over the course of the cruise). I was at the front, and at times could hear more of his voice coming from him than from the speakers (which at least helps dispel a criticism I’ve seen of some recent shows, people claiming that at points in the show he’s miming — the vocals were absolutely coming from him). This was particularly annoying as his voice is *extremely* thin in his top end now (understandably so as he’s eighty-one). He’s still got the notes, he just hasn’t got the power in them that he used to have, though he’s still as good in his chest voice as he ever was. What you hear at the top of his range is the ghost of a great voice, but it audibly *is* the ghost of a great voice. He uses a lot of the same tricks to cover this that Al Green did when I saw him twenty-five years ago — having the backing vocalists augment him, pointing the mic to the crowd, and the rest — but it would still have been better had his voice been higher in the mix. And on the songs where he was in chest voice, things like “Fight the Power” and “It’s Your Thing”, he still sounded exactly like he did in his thirties.

And of course Ernest Isley can still *play* like he did when he was in his twenties. He’s one of the great guitarists of the immediate post-Hendrix generation, and often gets compared to Hendrix — unsurprisingly since Jimi was his elder brothers’ guitarist at a time when Ernie was an impressionable teenager watching from the wings — and he uses a lot of the same stage tricks that Hendrix used, such as playing with his teeth, playing with his guitar upside down behind his neck, and so forth. But of course these are tricks that Hendrix picked up from his time playing on the chitlin’ circuit, where many other guitarists used them (a lot of what made Hendrix so revolutionary was that he was using the standard techniques that Black artists used for Black audiences and bringing them to a white audience in a different subgenre). 

I’m not usually a fan of flashy guitar heroics, which generally seem more masturbatory than anything else, but in Isley’s case the flash and technique are combined with songcraft and a fine compositional mind. On record, the guitar pyrotechnics are done in service of the song, and that’s not quite true in the same way on stage, but they’re done in service of the *show*. It’s not flashy feedback and lightning-fast triplets for the sake of the guitarist, but to overawe the audience. It’s showmanship at its finest.

As the Isleys have such a long run of hits, they can pick and choose the songs they perform based on the audience they’re playing to. The setlist this time was slightly heavier on their sixties hits than normal, incorporating songs like “This Old Heart of Mine” and “Twist and Shout” which they only rarely play when they’re playing for an audience more familiar with their collaborations with Beyonce, Snoop Dogg, and R. Kelly, but which are perfectly suited for an audience that was overwhelmingly made up of white people between the ages of roughly fifty and seventy. They also included a brief medley of songs from Ronald Isley’s contemporaries — a couple of Sam Cooke songs going into “Proud Mary” (which he spoke of as an Ike and Tina Turner song rather than a Creedence one). And of course the crowd was all familiar with their classic hits like “It’s Your Thing”, “Fight the Power”, “Summer Breeze”, and “That Lady”. But they still also acknowledged their connections with more recent music, doing “Make Me Say It Again Girl” in the same arrangement as the recent Beyonce collaboration, and starting “Between the Sheets” with Ronald Isley rapping “I love it when you call me big poppa”, imitating the song where Notorious B.I.G. sampled the Isleys.

I have rarely seen a better performance, and I’ve seen a lot of live music.

The next show couldn’t have been more different, but was equally worthwhile. Jimmy Webb is one of the great songwriters of his generation, but even though I have several albums by him and have seen him live before, I still somehow underrate him as a performer of his own material. I suspect it’s because his biggest curse is also his biggest blessing — he’s had material recorded by artists like the Four Tops, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and Glen Campbell, some of the greatest voices ever to sing in their respective genres. 

But Webb is himself an excellent singer. Not Glen Campbell good or Sinatra good, but who is? But he has a fine, strong, voice, and more to the point he’s an excellent showman, seamlessly slipping between anecdotes about the greats he’s worked with, told apparently off the cuff but with the kind of attention to word choice that marks out his lyrics (and almost certainly carefully crafted, though I remember none of them from the previous time I saw him), and his catalogue of classic songs. And what a catalogue it is — “Galveston”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Didn’t We”, “Up, Up, and Away”, “All I Know”, “MacArthur Park” (introduced by talking about the trend to psychedelic lyrics in the mid-sixties, quoting bits of Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, and more, and ending with “but I put *one* cake out in the rain…”), “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

He performed at the piano, with his only other accompaniment being a guitarist who mostly added a tiny bit of colour with some swelling volume-pedal single notes, but held the entire theatre spellbound for an hour and a quarter, and didn’t even include half his classics (no “Honey Come Back”, “Where’s the Playground Suzie?”, or “Do What You Gotta Do” for example), though he said he’ll be switching the setlist round for his other shows.

And finally (for me at least, there were some shows in the theatre venues later) the Beach Boys (Mike Love and Bruce Johnston), back on the main stage. 

Love’s touring Beach Boys has a bad reputation in some quarters, and much of that is just down to personal dislike of Love, who may be the most-hated man in rock music. That’s an opinion I’ve never actually been able to understand. Certainly he has dislikable aspects and plenty of them, from his conservative political views to his apparent over-willingness to sue colleagues and family members, to his apparent arrogance. But I think the worst that can be said about him with any substance behind it is that he can be a bit of a dick at times, and about which of us can that *not* be said? Certainly in a business that has historically been full of actual monsters who get treated as legends, the personal vitriol aimed at Love seems *vastly* disproportionate, even if one takes every single negative story as the absolute truth.

There’s rather more justification, though, for those who had musical issues with Love’s band based on how they sounded in the first few years after Carl Wilson’s death and Alan Jardine’s sacking. Even before Wilson’s death, the band in the nineties had often been, frankly, an embarrassment, with corners cut on arrangements, shoddy harmonies, and everything swamped in a wash of cheap Casio-sounding keyboards and tinkling cymbals.

In the late nineties and early 2000s, without the balancing presence of Wilson and Jardine, those problems were magnified tenfold. The band at that time was, simply, *bad*. If you went to see a Beach Boys show around the turn of the millennium, you’d get performances of  non-Beach Boys material like”Sherry”, sung by a British Frankie Valli impersonator who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket even if equipped with state-of-the-art bucket-carrying equipment and assisted by several professional bucket carriers, while drums were played by Mike Kowalski, a man who may be the single worst professional musician I’ve ever seen live on any instrument, who could not keep a steady beat to save his life and who didn’t seem to realise his kit had snares and toms, choosing instead to use the cowbell and hi-hat.

But then, once Brian Wilson started touring regularly with a band which contains some of the best musicians in the business, playing the music accurately, Love responded to the competition by improving his show dramatically. He started including more obscure songs in the set, and a series of lineup changes improved the band dramatically. By 2008, the musical director was Scott Totten, a Juilliard graduate with a knowledge of and love for the music that’s second to none, who insists on getting every detail right — to the extent that, for example, in “Sloop John B”, he makes sure one of the vocalists sings “break up” rather than “broke up” at the end of the second verse, replicating a mistake that Alan Jardine made on the record. And the drummer was John Cowsill, who on his worst day is infinitely better than Kowalski at his best, and at his best is the best live drummer I’ve ever seen,

There have been more lineup changes since then, but the core band of Love, Johnston, Totten, Cowsill, and keyboard player Tim Bonhomme (who isn’t given the same opportunity to be impressive as Totten or Cowsill, given that he’s mostly playing relatively straightforward pads, string lines and organ parts and so on, and doesn’t sing lead or get many solos, so I always rather ignore him in reviews and feel bad about it) has been consistent in their roles for fifteen years, and have put on consistently excellent shows. (The rest of the band at the moment is Brian Eichenberger, formerly briefly of Brian Wilson’s band and before that a touring member of the Four Freshmen, on falsetto vocals and rhythm guitar; Christian Love, Mike Love’s son, on “Carl Wilson” vocals and additional guitar; Randy Leago on saxophone and flute, and Keith Hubacher on bass). 

They have had, for the last fifteen years, a setlist that consistently falls into the same shape, and which can be lengthened or shortened to fit the venue they’re playing (and which those who attended the Beach Boys reunion shows in 2012 will recognise). They always start with “Do It Again” (or *very* occasionally “Surfin'”), followed by a quick run-through of several surf songs from 1962 and 63, also throwing in “Little Honda”. That ends with a mini peak of “Surfin’ USA”, which is followed by bringing the tempo down for “Surfer Girl”.  There’s then the first expandable/contractable/deletable section, which is where they perform minor hits, mid-sixties album tracks, and the odd obscurity, songs that not everyone in the audience will know but usually fun-sounding ones and usually from about 1965 (this is where, for example, they will play “Please Let Me Wonder”, “Kiss Me Baby”, “When I Grow Up To Be a Man”, or “Good to My Baby” when they play those, as well as songs like “Darlin'”, “Be True to Your School” or “Getcha Back” which were hits but not their biggest hits) . That section always ends when they start “Don’t Worry Baby”, at which point Mike Love says “let’s hotwire the hot-rods one more time!” and they perform all the car hits — “Little Deuce Coupe”, “409”, “Shut Down”, and “I Get Around”, always in that order. 

If they’re playing a theatre, “I Get Around” is the end of the first half, and there’s an intermission, leaving the audience on a high. If there’s been an intermission, the second half starts with “California Dreamin'”, to give the audience time to get back to their seats — a song they’ll recognise, but which people won’t be worried about having missed as the Beach Boys didn’t have the hit with it. If there’s not been an intermission, it’s “California Girls”, which also comes after “California Dreamin'” in theatre sets. After that, there’s a section of the artier material, which again can grow or shrink depending on how receptive the venue is to the arty side of the group. It’s here that the Pet Sounds material always goes (they always do the three singles, but they’ll also do more in a theatre show, like “Here Today” or “You Still Believe in Me”), along with seventies songs like “Forever” or “Sail on Sailor” if they do those, and introspective stuff like “In My Room”. 

Coming out of that section, they have the hit covers — “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Rock and Roll Music” — followed by a run of three number ones — “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Kokomo”, and “Good Vibrations” to end the show, with “Barbara Ann” and “Fun Fun Fun” as the two encores.

That show is the one they always play, hitting the same peaks every time, but they can cut it to a skeletal twenty-song set by *just* playing the peaks — the surf songs, the car songs, “California Girls”, the three “Pet Sounds” singles, the run of number ones and the encores — when playing festival slots or similar, or expand it to as many as sixty songs when playing UK indoor venues (Scott Totten once apologised to me after a UK theatre show because they’d “only” done fifty-seven songs that night because there was a curfew). In the latter case they’ll do things like “All This is That”, “Til I Die”, most of Pet Sounds, “Heroes and Villains” (with a section of “Our Prayer” at the end), “Disney Girls”, “Surf’s Up” and so on (and usually do those extraordinarily well),

They basically have four different versions of that show — a twenty-song festival one, a thirtyish song outdoor headlining show version, a forty-song US theatre one, and a fifty-plus-song UK theatre one. 

The version they play on the Beach Boys Cruise is the thirtyish-song, no-interval version, with one slight variant — Mark McGrath, the former lead singer of Sugar Ray, who is a friend of Love’s, joins the group for a couple of songs, and so they do one of Sugar Ray’s hits, “Fly”, which obviously the group don’t normally do. 

The Beach Boys do two shows on the cruise, and last year they did their standard thirty-ish song set the first time, and a longer set with the addition of a few songs they don’t normally do for the second show. I don’t know if that’s the plan this time, but I assume it is, and so I’ll give a more detailed review of the performance when they do the second show. 

But I’ve seen the Beach Boys some twenty-five times in twenty-two years by this point, and because I know the show so well (I can talk along with Mike Love’s stage patter) what I tend to notice more than anything else are the points where the show deviates even slightly from my expectations. This tends to mean that if I try to review the shows, I end up coming up with something like “Tim Bonhomme was having trouble with his in-ear monitor and had to leave the stage a couple of times to try and get it sorted” (which is what happened on the first show of last year’s cruise) or “Christian Love is clearly having problems with his throat, they’ve given a couple of his usual leads to Cowsill and are only having him do the crucial stuff” (last year’s Albert Hall gig), that sort of thing.

I’ll try not to do that in the review proper of the second show, but in order to alleviate my autistic scrupulosity, I will point out the things like that that I noticed about last night’s show:

Keith Hulbacher’s bass kept feeding back. I suspect this was a problem with how the PA responded to particular frequencies rather than anything else, because I noticed a similar but lesser problem with a few notes of Mike’s bass vocal and the baritone sax.

When they played “Getcha Back”, which they do now with the new lyrics Mike did on his remake on his solo album, Mike completely blanked on the lyrics to the new third verse,

John Stamos also guested (for those outside the US, Stamos is an actor who appeared in a very popular American soap opera and later in an equally popular sitcom, he’s an amateur drummer and guitarist, and sometimes guests with the Beach Boys, though only rarely outside the US. I’d only seen him once before, at last year’s Albert Hall gig, where his presence clearly bemused an audience who had about as much idea who he was as an American audience would have about, say, Yootha Joyce), and he threw into relief just *how good* Cowsill is on the drums. Stamos is a perfectly competent amateur drummer — I’ve played with worse, though I’ve played with better — but he fumbled a couple of changes, most notably on “I Get Around”. Not in a way anyone in the audience who hadn’t seen the group live dozens of times would notice, and recoverably, but it happened. Cowsill, by contrast, was playing even better than normal, doing some incredible tom work on “Hawaii” in particular. 

Mike’s bass vocal was too high in the mix on “Surfer Girl” and “In My Room”, and sounded slightly off. Weirdly, exactly the same happened on last year’s cruise, though never at any other shows I’ve seen.

Anyway, there is your nitpickers’ guide to last night’s Beach Boys show. A non-nitpicker might instead have said something along the lines of how the entire audience loved every second, and how they played thirty songs back to back where everyone in the audience knew every word, with spot-on harmonies and musicianship throughout, with Love charming the audience with well-worn jokes and connecting with individual members of the audience, Johnston acting as a goofy sidekick, Scott Totten playing blistering lead guitar, and the music played with respect for the recorded versions but without losing the edge and excitement that one gets from a great live performance.

But that, of course, could be a review of any Beach Boys show.

Tomorrow: Meet and greets, the Surfrajettes, and the Temptations…

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.